Mental Health in the Elite Athlete Community

This isn’t a new subject by any means. We’re seeing more and more professional athletes speak up and go public with their various struggles.  College Athletic Departments are putting more structure and programming in place to address mental health for their student athletes.  I believe were making progress, but we as an elite athlete community have a long way to go.  

In the field of Clinical Social Work, one of our jobs is to research and address social problems. A social problem is an alleged situation or widespread issue that affects a significant number of people.  Over the last few months my work has been dedicated to researching and addressing the social problem of mental health within the elite athlete community. 

Remove competitive sport from the scenario and mental health in general continues to be a widespread issue within the United States.  We’re living in a time where stress and anxiety are at an all time high. A pandemic, the presidential election, and systemic racism don’t help. 


But let's look at the numbers: 

-The National Institute of Mental Health (2017) states that roughly 1 in 5 adults in the US will experience issues with mental health each year. (1)

-The highest prevalence of mental health issues is experienced in individuals 18-25. This is specifically college age and early professional athletes. (1)

-57.7% of undergraduate students in the US said that in the last 12 months they’ve had an overwhelming sense of anxiety. (2)

-64% of college students drop out or take a leave of absence because of mental health issues. (3)

-A 2015 study found that 23.7% of athletes reported clinically relevant depressive symptoms over the span of three years. (4) 

-Female athletes were almost two times more likely to reflect depressive symptoms and anxiety compared to males. (5) 

- Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death in college athletes. (5) 


****I’d like to point out that the majority of these studies are done via self report. Meaning, they are asking athletes to self-report on various mental health issues. What we know is that athletes often DON'T report (it is more than likely that these numbers are on the conservative side). 


The data is there to show the significant impact of mental health in today’s society. However, I believe the elite athlete community is specifically at risk. When looking at the data, athletes have very similar rates of mental health issues compared to that of the general public. But the issue comes with the stigma. We know that athletes specifically are LESS likely to seek help.  A 2019 study showed that there is greater perceived public AND self stigma within the elite athlete community compared to the general public (6).  A 2007 study examining former Professional Football players indicated that one of the main reasons players did not seek help for depressive symptoms is because they were embarrassed to get help, and that they did not want to appear weak (7).  


So why is this the case? 


1) We Equate Being Mentally Tough with Mental Well Being

The exact qualities and characteristics that get us to the elite level sometimes keep us from seeking help. Grit. Fight. Determination. Courage. Strength. Push Yourself.  Get After It.  These are prerequisites to becoming an elite athlete. These are things that we hear all the time on the field and in our locker rooms.  But these are not interchangeable with Mental Well Being. You can be mentally tough, have all the grit in the world, score 10 goals in a gam and still struggle with things like anxiety or depression. Just because you are a competitor, you are tough and you know how to grind DOES NOT MEAN that you will always be mentally healthy. Mental Health does not discriminate. Yet, I believe we’ve created a culture that confuses this.


2) The Mental Health Stigma Dates Back to BEFORE the Middle Ages 

How did we deal with people that suffered from mental health issues? We hunted them down, tortured them, and most of the time killed them. We then spent years removing people with mental health issues from society and putting them in asylums. Don't even get me started on what I think is a very broken Mental Health Care System. 

What message does this give to our society?

No wonder we have issues with speaking up about our own mental health needs.  Much like we are dealing with the systemic issue of race in our society… we are fighting a system of oppression and condemnation of people with mental health issues. We are fighting CENTURIES worth of stigma. Pile that on top of the pressure that elite athletes already feel day in and day out to be mentally "tough." 


3) Mental Health (or what I like to call Well Being) Exists on a Spectrum

Mental Well Being isn’t black and white.  There are diagnosable disorders like depression, bipolar, schizophrenia and PTSD which sit at one end of the spectrum. There are also days and times in our life when we are just stressed and have a lot on our plate. There is a WHOLE LOT of stuff in between those two ends AND it is ALL is valid.   

Every single living human being has mental and emotional needs. 

Athletes do not have to have full blown, diagnosable depression to NEED HELP. I have heard too many athletes say “It's not that bad” compared to other people’s struggles. What you as an individual go through mentally is valid. It's ALL VALID and it deserves attention.  


This list is not comprehensive by any means but I think these are three aspects that very much contribute to the issue of the mental health problem within the elite athlete community. As administrators, coaches, teammates and athletes we need to continue to keep these things in mind as move forward. 


So where do we go from here? More to come there in my next post.. because that answer is WAY too much to add here! 

In the meantime I believe it starts with conversations and speaking up.  I commend those who are choosing to do so day in and day out. Let’s keep talking, sharing, tweeting, and spreading the momentum on this movement. 



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